Opinion

How America got to 500,000 COVID-19 deaths

We ignored reality, and our responsibility to each other

More than 500,000 Americans have died from COVID-19.

That is a half-million people who leave behind family, friends, and other loved ones haunted by grief and guilt. But the number doesn't quite capture the scope of the damage done — the survivors who lived through the disease but whose health has never fully returned, the young students whose education has been compromised, the shuttered businesses and employed workers who struggle to keep their homes, the widespread loneliness and isolation caused by the need for social distancing.

Survivors of the pandemic are a devastated generation, to be forever marked by the experience.

The pandemic afflicted the entire world, of course, but there is widespread agreement that it was far worse in the United States than it had to be — that there was so much death and suffering that could have and should have been avoided, if only we had collectively made a better, smarter effort.

We didn't make that effort, I think, because too many of us were selfish and deluded.

A year ago this week, the CDC's Dr. Nancy Messonier warned reporters that communities might need to shut down schools and ban mass gatherings. "We are asking the American public to work with us to prepare for the expectation that this could be bad," she said. Then-President Donald Trump didn't spring into action to support those preparations — instead, he raged because Messonier's comments sent the stock market tumbling. It was among the first of many selfish mistakes he would make.

Indeed, economic considerations have often taken priority over public health during the pandemic. Republicans resisted extending unemployment benefits because they feared American workers would stay home rather than risk their lives for a low-paying job. Meatpacking companies got Trump to issue an order keeping their plants open, after which executives at one plant allegedly started betting how many workers would get sick. The Republican lieutenant governor of Texas celebrated people returning to work last spring because "there are more important things than living." Since then, more than 40,000 Texans who tested positive for the virus have died.

Not everybody was afflicted by the profit motive — some Americans simply couldn't be bothered to feel responsible to or for the health of their neighbors. For example: It would have been easier for Americans to go about their lives safely over the last year if they had simply chosen to put on a mask. In my home state of Kansas, a CDC study in November showed that COVID cases decreased in the 24 counties with mask mandates — and increased in the 81 counties that shunned such mandates.

To be fair, mask usage across the country reached 90 percent by October. But many of the remaining 10 percent of Americans treated us to a series of viral video moments — rampaging in Walmarts, Targets, and other stores across America.

The best case for wearing a mask is not to protect the wearer, but to protect other people from the wearer — somebody who might unknowingly be carrying the virus and inadvertently spread illness to others. But that argument asks individuals to care about other people, to balance their own desires against the possibility of harming somebody else. Too many of us failed that test. Instead, going maskless often became proof of one's manhood and political bona fides.

That might not have happened if so many Americans hadn't been primed to reject reality itself. One of the most haunting stories of the pandemic came in November from a South Dakota nurse who said many of her hospitalized patients refused to believe that COVID is real. "And their last, dying words are, 'This can't be happening. It's not real,'" Jodi Doering told CNN. Many Americans didn't want the virus to be real, so they decided it wasn't, and told each other it was "no worse than the flu." In a year during which conspiratorial thinking seemed to grip much of the country, this was one of the deadliest fantasies around.

If there is any hope to be found upon reaching 500,000 deaths it is that there appears to be light at the end of the tunnel. More than 12 percent of the population has received at least one dose of a COVID-19 vaccine. Life may soon begin to look somehwat "normal" again. But we probably could have and should have saved more lives. The death toll isn't just a tragedy — it's a judgment.

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